"We support local farmers."
Wal-Mart Banner in Austin, Texas
Struck I was by The Atlantic’s recent article titled “Food Fight: Whole Foods Vs. Wal-Mart.” Having earned a reputation of devastating the fiber of local economies, Wal-Mart’s new Heritage Food program is pretty awesome. The nation’s largest retailer may be so big that it affects the way food is commonly bought and sold. Michael Pollan may be thrilled!
Wal-Mart’s latest business “foray” is to compete head-on with high—end supermarkets, notably Whole Foods. In instances cited, it is selling the same organic produce from the same farms as its competitors at lower cost. In a fortunate about-face of corporate policy, the benefits of buying local – decreased transportation costs, packaging – and buying seasonally from a network of local producers – now makes a lot of sense. Wal-Mart also intends to contract directly with farmers to save money. Imagine that.
Wal-Mart’s Heritage program is a huge victory for “locavores,” those that crave and subsist on local foods. Farmers markets, like LEED-certified buildings, often have radii of acceptable production. The Heritage Program will buy food grown within a day’s drive of the store, trimming distances dramatically when offsetting food trucked in from California or Florida.
Beyond that, Wal-Mart’s new initiative is a sign of the times. As the nation’s largest retailer, it has the potential to profoundly influence farming, getting back to diversified crop production and away from monocultures that inherently require distant shipping. Perhaps Costco will follow suit.
The Heritage program now provides 4 – 6% of Wal-Mart’s produce, a number that store officials claim will rise higher, perhaps to 20%. ”We support local farmers,” reads a banner at a store in Austin. “It’s getting harder and harder to hate Wal-Mart,” quipped an Environmental Defense Fund staffer.
They are 30 feet tall, four feet wide, and weigh 850 pounds. They are “amazing lessons in physics, mathematics, and environmental science.” They are “low-cost, low-noise, attractive wind generators.” They have no propeller. They are silent. They generate about 2,000 kWh a year, and cost $15,000 - 20,000 each. Oh yes, they are also “silent vertical axis wind power appliances!”
Three of them are strategically positioned outside of Copenhagen, Denmark’s City Hall. Dong Energy , a firm with 73% Danish ownership, has the exclusive rights to sell Windspires in Denmark. They are symbols, Dong insists, not intended to be laced throughout neighborhoods, but signs of environmental commitment. Denmark has no illusion to their scale. To reach the goals of Copenhagen’s Climate Action Plan -- cutting CO2 emissions by 20% in ten years, and carbon neutral by 2025, the city is currently investing in 14 new, full-size turbines at a cost of $105 million as a central element of its Climate Action Plan. The new wind farm is estimated to provide all the power requirements of 40,000 households.
An iPhone app has been developed called “Windspire me.” At Adobe Systems in San Jose, 20 Windspires adorn the three LEED-EB Platinum office towers, placed in a natural wind tunnel on a sixth floor patio/basketball court. (see ENN V13#2 and the Zero Carbon Study Tour). Twenty-five Windspires have been installed at the New York Hill campus of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The Windspires are clustered and a “wind terrace” for students provides a panoramic view.
The Bloom Box
The dream of cheap, endless, and emissions-free power!
A few weeks ago, I got a rash of excited e-mails and voice messages: Have you heard about “the Bloom Box?” “Is it really going to change the way we buy electricity?” It was featured on 60 Minutes. The Bloom Box is a fuel cell that converts methane mixed with oxygen to electricity. Plug and play comes to the power sector.
Call it a home power plant, a refrigerator-sized personal power plant! Will every home have one by 2020? Bloom Energy expects that every home in America will be followed by thorough deployment in Africa, China, and India. Is the Holy Grail “a power plant in a box?”
The best description of a fuel cell I’ve heard is that it is a continuous battery. They’ve been around since the 1830s. Just feed in the natural gas and voila, out comes electricity until you stop. Actually it’s a combination of oxygen and fuel that provides the chemical reaction resulting in power generation. The box is a conversion device, taking one form of fuel -- in this case methane -- and converting it to power. Does this signal the end of the smokestack and wires power industry?
Fuel cells are not new, but this may be a major breakthrough. For many years, Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells have been plagued by the semi-permeable membrane that serves as the ion exchange. The plates utilize metals like platinum and zirconium. This interface has been tricky, and while successfully developed for larger “stacks” for larger applications, their promise has been elusive for small applications. Enter Bloom Energy, led by K.R. Sridhar, a NASA scientist whose original box made oxygen for astronauts. The Bloom Box reverses the process. Kleiner Perkins, perhaps the nation’s leading clean tech investment capital firms, has got its muscle and some $400 million dollars into Bloom, a good sign!
Two thoughts for consideration:
First, Bloom Boxes and fuel cells are part of a major shift to “distributed generation,” or DG. The utility landscape is changing from central plants to backyard generation. How much of this will utilities accept? Will they limit DG through net energy metering to 2.5 – 5% of their peak demand as is the case in California? Will they charge “exit fees” to leave the grid, and then steep “re-entry” fees if you want to come back?
Second, even Bloom Boxes despite their hype are based on the consumption, though not combustion, of fossil fuels. While fuel cells may ultimately power our homes, businesses, and cars with hydrogen fuel cells, with hydrogen derived from electrolysis of water, Bloom Boxes use methane and release CO2. Sound familiar? Just how will Bloom Box’s CO2 emissions fare with competitors’ water vapors?
So what’s next? Bloom Boxes are now produced at the 100 kW size, and cost $700,000 – 800,000 each. Other companies such as Oorja Protonics, Panasonic, and Clean Edge are producing 5 kW residential units. The keys for all fuel cells are cost, size, and 24/7 reliability. If Bloom Boxes and other fuel cell products can be scaled up for mass production, reduced down for residential use, and mass produced to be as cost effective as they are thermodynamically efficient, they really might revolutionize how we pay our utility bill.
PACE Program Update
A basic idea has flourished.
In California, Mello Roos and AB 811 financing have been expanded to provide what is now known as “PACE,” property assessed clean energy. It has huge potential; many call it a game changer. In Pasadena I ran through slides of Berkeley’s pioneering effort, then Boulder, Palm Desert and Sonoma. Photos of our friends Cisco, Jim, Rod spiced up the presentation. This really was about a handful of people making a big difference.
Here’s how it works: Cities and counties in California (and now many other states) have been given the authority to provide financing for “energy efficiency fixtures and renewable energy systems” by placing a lien on the property and recovering payments on property tax roles. Assessments have been used for years for undergrounding power lines, putting in sidewalks, sewer line upgrades, fire stations, etc. PACE financing uses a voluntary assessment mechanism, providing relatively low-cost capital to property owners based on their title and property ownership, not personal credit. Typically, assessments are for public purposes on public property. AB 811 gave cities and counties the authority to use “public funds” for “private purposes on private property.”
So where do we stand? Palm Desert has loaned $7.5 million to 222 property owners, with average loan sizes of $33,000. The program has financed 154 HVAC retrofits and 102 solar systems. Just weeks ago the City increased its commitment to the program up to $15 million.
Sonoma has taken the Palm Desert model to a larger scale, serving a population ten times Palm Desert’s size. Its Energy Independence Program is lending at nearly a million dollars a week, with over $35 milion committed to date. There’s been lots going on throughout the state, from little Yucaipa that launched a $2.5 million program, to San Francisco where its GreenFinanceSF begins with a lending capacity of $150 million. That program charges a $300 application fee, requires energy efficiency audits prior to solar system installations, and the use of contractors qualified by the City.
Now Los Angeles County is gearing up to launch its program this summer. Howard Choy’s presentation followed mine in Pasadena. He discussed how the County will manage up to 88 cities plus its unincorporated areas. The statewide program is also launching this summer, with 14 counties and 150 cities lined up to participate in the CSCDA program, “California Statewide Communities Development Corporation.”
The presentation ended with a recap of key issues such as underwriting standards and performance lending, and of tremendous success. PACE is spreading across the country; some 16 states have enacted legislation for this new and exciting financing mechanism of profound significance.
What's Up at EcoMotion?
On February 6, 2010, EcoMotion’s Director of Corporate and Community Relations, Virginia Nicols, participated as a speaker at the Riordan Programs open house at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. The panel’s topic was “Corporate Social Responsibility;” co-panelists included the Director of Corporate Responsibility from Mattel and the Sustainability Coordinator at UCLA.
Ted Flanigan spoke at the Pasadena Solar Forum hosted by The Rahus Institute, presenting a 65-slide overview of financing options for solar power, featuring AB 811 / PACE financing which has now spread to 18 states. The presentation included program updates from Berkeley, Palm Desert, Sonoma, Boulder, Yucaipa, San Francisco, Los Angeles County, and the “statewide program.” Fellow panelist Howard Choy presented his progress launching the LA County program.
Ted was then featured on National Public Radio’s Marketplace Money with Tess Viglund discussing this “breakthrough” financing mechanism. Click here to check it out
. Ted will be joining David Hodgins of the Clinton Climate Initiative at the Municipal Green Building Expo and Conference in April to discuss the AB 811 opportunity.
Six Solar Flags ™ and counting! Two more permits issued. That’s the state of the Solar Schools program in Anaheim managed by EcoMotion. With California Division of State Architect (DSA) approved design in hand, EcoMotion is well on its way completing the ten-school project and in educating young Anaheim students about the merits of solar power. Hundreds of elementary school students, their teachers, and families are celebrating the Solar Flag’s kick-off events. EcoMotion’s Tiffany Tay and Drew Lowell-Britt are solar instructors extraordinaire, complete with motivational and fun solar slide shows! Have you had a “solar conversation” with the young students in your life?
Meanwhile, the 1 MW and 431 kW photovoltaic systems being guided by EcoMotion as “Solar Agent” are on track, within days of complete design engineering and ready for Building and Safety in their respective jurisdictions. We expect green power and lots of it by July and August respectively.